The issue with the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue

This piece was written by Lexie Kite and originally posted on beautyredefined.net. Thanks so much to Lexie and her sister Lindsay for allowing us to re-post this, and for doing such a great job with Beauty Redefined!


On Tuesday, the hotly anticipated 2011 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue will hit the mailboxes of 70 million SI subscribers, every newsstand and media outlet, at least 250 million people will view the thousands of images online, and a 30-minute video for PlayStation will be released with an “up close and personal” look at the photo shoots.

Since it’s unlikely you will hear any media outlet discuss the Swimsuit Issue’s serious blow to female equality, self-image, attack on women of color or its use of pornography packaged as “safe” for the home coffee table, we are here to give you fair warning! I have chosen not to include any photos from my 40-year analysis because they are displayed everywhere else you will be looking (whether you want to see them or not), and Beauty Redefined is dedicated to de-normalizing these harmful images rather than promoting them in any way.

Every week, 30 million faithful followers catch up on the latest sports news in their weekly edition or online version of SI, the self-proclaimed “foremost authority” and “most respected voice” in sports journalism. And once a year, every year, those 30 million subscribers soar to more than 70 million and are joined by 250 million more online viewers for the always record-breaking event known as the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Published since 1964, the SI’s 200-plus pages of nude to semi-nude females is truly a cultural event, generating global mainstream media coverage, TV shows, calendars, DVDs and mass amounts of memorabilia to push Sports Illustrated’s sales through the roof every spring. Since its birth, the Swimsuit Issue has earned $1 billion for SI’s parent company, Time Warner, which owns CNN, AOL, HBO, the CW, Time Inc, DC Comics and hundreds of other media companies. Talk about a media powerholder!

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue: “A Cult-Type Thing”

The increasing popularity – even inescapable presence – of the Swimsuit Issue alone is enough to warrant serious study of this magazine. But while numerous readers and viewers post the pinups on their bedroom walls, countless more feel those non-sports-related images should stay in blatantly pornographic outlets like Playboy and Penthouse. Either way, 44 years after the first edition of the Swimsuit Issue and hundreds of millions of viewers later, the magazine has become a popular culture phenomenon. Even back in 1979, one reader is quoted in the magazine as saying the annual issue is an “American tradition,” along with baseball and hotdogs, while another calls it “a cult-type thing” for male consumers across the country. Today, SI.com claims 32 percent of adults in America regularly read the Swimsuit Issue (22 million are reported to be women), and with its own YouTube channel, mobile video on demand, and record-breaking website hits, this magazine is quickly becoming a global spectacle.

With a gold mine of information yet to be examined academically in terms of the Swimsuit Issue, this study is an attempt to move beyond the basic arguments on the disempowering nature of the images. My main goal with this research is to expose the way harmful, objectified ideals about women’s bodies are normalized and made so mainstream that we don’t question them. With this objective and the hundreds of millions of SI viewers in mind, I analyzed issues from 1978, ‘88, ‘98 and 2008 to explore the ways images of nude or nearly nude women are made normal and mainstream in one of the most popular “sports” magazines of all time.

I, and many other scholars, argue that the SI Swimsuit Issue profits from a philosophy of constructing men as active, women as passive; men as subjects, women as objects; men as actors, women as receivers; men as the lookers and women as the looked-at; and I argue, men as consumers and women as the “to-be-consumed” (Betterton, 1987). Women today have been socialized to see themselves through the male gaze so that they are both spectators and spectacles. As spectators of themselves, women learn from popular media, in this case the wildly popular Swimsuit Issue, to compare their appearances with the media’s feminine ideal, becoming objects of their own gaze. This feminine ideal, as proven again and again by the Swimsuit Issue, leads women to internalize these mediated ideals and constantly work to live up to these perfected “norms” of beauty while leading men to believe these qualities are essential (and attainable) in a mate. Essentially, “the feminine ideal is tanned, healthy slenderness, with no unsightly bumps, bulges, or cellulite, and bodily and facial perfection that results from hours of labor: exercise, makeup, and hair care” ( Kuhn, 1985), and 20 years later, plastic surgery and digital manipulation.

When Pornography Goes Mainstream

Magazines like Playboy, Hustler and Penthouse are an obvious source for voyeurism, or the act of secretive looking at things of a sexual nature without being seen, and those sources do so without apology. The Swimsuit Issue is equally voyeuristic in nature, but does so under the guise of being “America’s foremost sports authority” and “most popular sports journalism magazine.” Essentially, this magazine offers sexual fantasies and blatant voyeurism hidden undercover as a sports magazine. Duncan put it best in 1993 when she said, “If they so desire, readers can sneak looks at the models while steadfastly denying that they buy and read the issue for pornographic content,” and she had NO IDEA what SI would look like in 2011, with the help of digital manipulation, surgical enhancements and reductions, and a global company owner with the power to publish and produce nearly any message and distribute it immediately.

SI masks its pornographic presence by placing the models in foreign locations with sandy beaches and tropical jungles so as to appear to promote travel destinations and the appreciation of nature. And don’t forget to take into account the idea of being a “swimsuit issue” is quickly becoming a lie. Instead, in the record-breaking 2008 issue, the models are wearing far less than swimsuits more than 50 percent of the time and only body paint for much of that time, which clearly invites voyeurism. When they do wear bathing suits, the most private of parts that are normally censored in mainstream media are repeatedly exposed in an “oops, I didn’t know that was showing” sort of fashion. Even the cover of the 2008, 2009, and 2010 issues features topless models with string bikini bottoms only big enough to cover the necessary amount of skin to avoid censorship.

When Women of Color Go Wild: Exoticization in SI

Though the original Sports Illustrated began in 1954, people of color were found solely in the first 10 years of publication as “hired help” by serving food and drink, performing physical labor, or entertaining in ways that U.S. readers would perceive as “exotic.” By 1982, the magazine had featured only two women of color anywhere within its pages, but they always had very light skin and typically “white” features. It may startle you to know the first dark-skinned model did not appear within the pages of the Swimsuit Issue until 1990 – more than 35 years after its initial publication, after the production staff received complaints about its exclusionary practices and realized their increasingly non-white readership would pay to see models of color. According to one anonymous editor in the early 1990s: “I think the magazine’s growing up, and being more aware of the social consequences of what it’s doing.” (Davis, 1997).

The 2008 Swimsuit Issue features approximately 72 percent white models and 28 percent non-white models, which closely resembles the U.S. population. However, the harmful issue at play in this magazine is not so much the number of representations anymore, but the type of representations. What I want to emphasize is how the “exoticization” of women of color within this magazine does NOT reflect a magazine being “aware of the social consequences of what it is doing” as one editor put it, but promotes dangerous ideas that whiteness is the norm and the most desirable, and anything else is an exotic deviation – even a less-than human object of desire.

History tells us women of color have historically been described as “exotic” in popular media, and it has always carried a sexual connotation. In the 2008 issue alone, I explain the details of how “exoticization” works: When a dark-skinned model appears, she is most often wearing a different animal print bikini on every one of the pages she is featured on, which makes her appear to be animal-like or “exotic.” One of only two dark-skinned models in the 225 pages of images is seen exclusively in leopard and cheetah print bikinis. In Western, white culture, there has long been a fascination with black women as different and ‘other.’ Therefore, this swimsuit model, representative of the non-white female population, reflects what is exotic, inhuman and even animalistic as she strikes seductive poses in her animal-print bikini. Need more evidence of this “wild” phenomenon? The 2008 magazine boasts a two-page spread featuring the only Hispanic model. She appears to be emerging from a muddy body of water, with dirt covering her face, neck and chest. With only a roughly one-inch piece of cloth visible on her body, this model doesn’t model anything but mud! Instead, she appears to be a less-than-human object made up of nothing more than breasts and dirt. Photographs such as this degrade non-white women, and even all of non-Western societies, by reinforcing a stereotype of non-white women as “different,” exotic and purely sexual.

I Object!

Let me be blunt here. Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is the epitome of female objectification. Packaged in a magazine that can be picked up and packed around, the semi-nude to nude females within the pages can be equally possessed and controlled. Do you want further evidence of the objectification overflowing the pages of this magazine? Because you’re going to get it! The Swimsuit Issue represents the very literal fragmenting of women into parts of women. Between 1978 and 1988, the models were often in two-page spreads where their chests were the focus of one page while their backsides and hips occupied the other. But in the late 1990s, editors made the classically pornographic move to a three-page centerfold spread. As the 2008 issue featuring cover model Marissa Miller demonstrates, three-page spreads allow for women’s bodies to be segmented and magnified into three parts: faces, chests and behinds. She is first identified as one page of chesy and one page of a derriere as the reader turns to the centerfold. Appearing virtually headless, the only way to identify her face is to turn back one page and unfold it to find all three pages. If this magazine continues progressing – better yet, regressing – toward more extreme forms of female objectification, its next step will be to simply leave the heads off their models, blur out their faces or place bags over their heads.

In 1978, the swimsuit models posed in what we’d now call mildly seductive positions. Most often posed with flirtatious smiles and hands on hips to emphasize the curve of their waists, these women were acting to accentuate their best features – the objects of men’s desire. But as years passed, the models seem to more fully act like they were turning themselves into objects. By 1988, the cover model, Elle Macpherson, is staring intently into the camera while pulling her swimsuit down to expose her cleavage. Because her goal is to attract and satisfy the male gaze, she is acting with herself as a male would act if he were present. But just wait! The 2008 edition (and all the following) take objectification to the extreme. The 2008 issue, titled “Barely Bikinis,” is packed with models tugging at or removing bikini tops and, most often, bottoms. This is just one example of the models turning their own bodies into objects to be acted upon. Further, the title “Barely Bikinis” is an understatement: the majority of the models appear naked, missing either the top or bottom of their bikini or are wearing completely translucent coverings. More fully bare chests appear in 2008’s edition than any other Swimsuit Issue, which further proves the shockingly increasing amount of objectification taking place year after year.

The Swimsuit Issue’s Global Impact

The global exposure of the Swimsuit Issue, one of the self-proclaimed “most powerful phenomena in publishing and new media,” is having and will continue to have a worldwide impact: an impact on the way white and non-white women are viewed, and therefore, treated; an impact on the normalization of pornography as safe and socially acceptable; an impact on the standard of beauty we all use to evaluate women; an impact on profit increases in diet and beauty industries, as well as an increase in cosmetic surgery procedures. Objectification, exoticization and normalized pornography, occurring in more extreme and blatant ways each year, work to harm women and cannot be accepted in the U.S.’s “most respected voice” in sports journalism.

Speak out! If the harmful ideals identified in my research bother you and you’d like to help Beauty Redefined break the silence, please comment on this post and I will send this story and your comments directly to the editors and publisher of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

Please feel free to share this information and use it, but remember to use the proper citation:

Lexie Kite, 2011. “The Issue with Swimsuits in Sports Illustrated.” Excerpt from “Top Debut Paper” paper presented at Western Communication Association Conference in Anchorage, Alaska: April 2010.


Berger, J. (1977). Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin. (Original work published in 1972).

Davis, Laurel B. (1997). The Swimsuit Issue and Sport: Hegemonic Masculinity in Sports Illustrated. Albany State University of New York Press.

Whatley, Mariamne H (1988). Photographic Images of Blacks in Sexuality Texts. Curriculum Inquiry. 18(2) pp.137- 155.

Duncan, Margaret Carlisle (1993). Beyond Analyses of Sport Media Texts: An Argument for Formal Analyses of Institutional Structures. Sociology of Sport Journal. 10: pp. 353-372.

4 thoughts on “The issue with the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue

  1. In a free society, everyone should have the right to publish anything as long as it is legal, not only what ugly and fat women like.

    Also, this “objectificiation” is completely evolutionary: males are much more visual than females, thats why men read the Swimsuit Issue while women read Twilight, which also portrays an ideal male which is unnattainable for any human.

  2. Peter,
    I’m the author of this research and thought I should address your thoughts. First, this is a blurb from a 30-pg research paper I wrote for my doctoral studies, which provides further evidence that the images in SI aren’t simply “evolutionary,” but based on a profit-driven ploy that amounted in 10 images of women in one-piece swimsuits in the 70s to 250+ pages of nude or near-nude women just 20 yrs later. That is some quick evolution!

    Also, 22 million women report to buy and view the swimsuit issue every year, so this is obviously not limited to men.

    Finally, no one would ever call me fat or ugly. Nor would most of the women committed to this type of research. I do this because I care about the harmful nature of these and many other messages in media presented as normal, attainable, and acceptable. If you feel a message you come across in popular media is dangerous, I’d hope you’d speak up too. Maybe give that Twilight analysis a shot! I’m sure you could contribute some good there 🙂 Thanks Pete!

Comments are closed.